I purchased a relief carving on Ebay a little while ago. It depicts two people in a workshop sawing a log. There was no further information about the carving, its age, or where it was made. I asked Suzanne Ellison per the recommendation of Christopher Schwarz to see if she perhaps could tell me more about it. She wrote back with some very interesting information, analyzing the carving and providing a wealth of information. I wanted to share this information with you in a blog post.
I bought this carving on German Ebay, which initially made me think the carving was probably German. I searched for other relief carvings and came across a few more depicting a similar scene. Some were so similar to the one I bought that it has made me think it may be based on a famous carving or painting. Most other carvings I found originated in Spain, so I assume my carving may actually be Spanish as well.
One thing that is pretty typical for scenes involving a woodworking workshop is that it might be a religious carving and depicting Jesus and St. Joseph. After all, Jesus was a carpenter (and so was his dad).
The arrangement of the figures in the carving most closely resembles a painting of the Holy Family by Juan del Castillo (“La Segrada Familia” by Juan del Castillo, 1634-1636. From the Museum of Fine Arts Sevilla.).
Little Christ is not trying to saw a log in half, which it looks like at first glance. It is more likely he is shaping a tenon together with his dad, Joseph.
Whilst many woodworkers are going to look at the accuracy of the tools, the action, body position, Suzanne looked at the whole composition and not just the woodworking component. Another image that closely resembles the carving is the below image of a Spanish fresco, possibly 16th century, which appears to be illustrating the “board stretching” ability of young Jesus as written in an apocryphal gospel.
It has a nice wonky bench as well:
Who are the people in the carving?
Are the people in the carving St. Joseph and Jesus? How do we know if we are looking at a religious or secular painting? St. Joseph can be identified by the trio of the Holy Family, with the trio often painted in a triangular composition (a human trinity). Mary is usually sewing or spinning, Jesus (when not held by a parent or in a cradle) is collecting wood shavings, sweeping or woodworking with or without Joseph.
Most of the time Joseph is woodworking. When Joseph is shown only with Jesus the give-aways are halos, biblical-era robes and the locations of the paintings (cathedrals, chapels, shines). When Joseph is alone he can be identified by one or more of his symbols: carpentry tools, a staff with white lilies or the star of David. Halos, biblical robes and the location of the image in a religious building also help.
The carving satisfies the carpentry tool requirement and there is a man and a youth working together. Another element to consider is the arch. This is a common architectural feature of churches and monasteries. An arch draws the eye upward. They are entrances that lead to the high ceiling of the nave.
In each of the three images above an arch is used in symbolic ways. In Castillo’s painting (left) the arch encloses and protects the human trinity. In the old Spanish fresco (right) the outline of the arch moves from Mary to Joseph, emphasizing they are the parents and protectors of Jesus, as well as, forming a frame of the human trinity. In my carving (middle) we see something similar. The saw is held by the man on one end and the youth on the other end, and with the arch positioned between the two figures, it flows from one end of the saw to the other. Both the saw and the arch join the two figures.
The youth also looks to the adult, which is another connection.
The clothing of the figures in the carving doesn’t appear to be significant. Not all paintings of St. Joseph and Jesus are in biblical-type robes. Very often the clothing was contemporary to the era in which it was painted. There are knee britches, long-sleeved shirts with vests, long pants and all kinds of hats.
The foreground of the carving is interesting. The carver has placed the figures in the center with the space at the top a bit bigger than the floor space. What do you do with empty space? You can irritate Chris Schwarz and throw some tools all over or you can make the floor area more interesting and fill it with a pattern. The floor could have been carved to be a monotone stone floor, but your carver made a checkerboard floor. It adds depth and dimension and interest to the carving.
Does the checkerboard floor have a meaning? One symbolic meaning is from Freemasonry and that is the Temple of King Solomon had a checkerboard floor. The aim of Freemasonry is to make better men out of good men which would include being better fathers. Was the carver of this piece a Mason? If he was a Mason and German, and the carver made this work 80-100 years ago, he would have had to be very careful about using Freemasonry symbols. If he was Catholic, or one of several other religions, he would not be a Mason or used their symbols. The checkerboard floor was therefore probably done to fill the lower space with an interesting pattern that did not detract from the central figures.
The carving could have been made to hang in the carver’s home as a religious plaque honoring St. Joseph and Jesus. If it is an entirely secular work it is a carving of a father and son or a master and apprentice, and the arch and the checkerboard floor are meant to fill in the empty spaces.
One particular misericord might be of interest, it is highly doubtful this was an attempt to depict St. Joseph & Jesus:
This is from the Index of Christian Art held by Princeton University. The carving is from a church in Baden-Baden. The Index identifies the church as St. Christopher’s, but that may be incorrect, and it doesn’t have a date. It might be 16th or 17th century and it looks to be from a wall panel and not a misericord. It doesn’t represent any of the known religious fables usually seen in misericords, it is not overtly religious and so is listed as “occupational.”
It has the tools of a carpenter and the man is working with a youth and the carving is in a church. Was this meant to be St. Joseph and Jesus? Or, is it one of the many scenes of woodworkers done by the carvers working for years on misericords, choir panels and other decorative pieces in a church or cathedral? It was a way to commemorate their work and, in this case, inject some humor into the scene.
Perhaps the carver is commemorating the carpenters, or a particular carpenter, that worked to make and install the panels and took license to poking fun at them and their insistence on precise measurements. I particularly like how the youth-son-apprentice is a mini-me of the adult. Same thick, ear-length hair sticking out from under the round flat-top hat and both staring out at the viewer instead of watching exactly where that saw is going. The shield on the bottom may be for a guild or the sponsor paying for the work.
Side note: that type of hat is still made and worn. In America the hats are called dockers and were traditionally worn by longshoremen.
Where does the carving originate?
While Suzanne was researching workbenches for Ingenious Mechanicks, it was artwork from Spain and the Spanish New World colonies that broke open a huge amount of information for the book.
The imagery used in religious paintings, especially those made to hang in a church, was for the benefit of illiterate parishioners. They saw the symbols and understood who was depicted in the painting and what part of the story of the life of Jesus, or a saint, was being told.
This carving is not overtly religious but still has echoes of artwork that does represent Joseph and Jesus. The way the arch is positioned is important. It isn’t framing the top of the carving as was done in Castillo’s painting. At first look it is a background feature, second look and it joins the two figures.
As for the checkerboard floor the second photo of this scene says the most. It fills the foreground while not detracting from the figures and adds perspective. Along with the arch and small window, the floor completes the picture of the two figures working in a shop or room. They aren’t just hanging in space. And we can leave out any references to Freemasonry!
It is likely that the carving originates in Spain and depicts a holy scene of the Holy Father and Son in the carpentry workshop. Though the carving is not overly religious, it is the most likely explanation of the choice of figures and their placement.
Many thanks to Suzanne for this wealth of information!